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4th Cir. Revives Lawsuit Against Baltimore PD, Real-Life Det. Munch

By William Peacock, Esq. on September 25, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Will this be the basis of David Simon's next big hit?

James Owens was set free in 2008, after serving two decades in prison. This week, the Fourth Circuit reinstated his lawsuit over the false conviction, which he says was obtained via the police department and state's attorneys' withholding of exculpatory evidence.

Now, the detectives on the case, who served as inspiration for characters in Simon's first big hit (NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street") as well as his most critically acclaimed masterpiece (HBO's "The Wire"), will be defendants in his lawsuit, along with the Baltimore Police Department and the prosecutor.

James Owens Set Free

Owens was convicted of the 1987 rape and murder of Colleen Williar, largely on the basis of testimony from the victim's neighbor, who claimed that he retrieved a knife from outside the apartment on behalf of his friend, James Owens. The neighbor, James Thompson, later changed his story to say that Owens borrowed the knife from him, then returned it with blood on it.

When a pubic hair found at the scene was tested mid-trial, and matched Thompson rather than Owens, Thompson changed his story five more times during a subsequent interrogation, finally settling on a version in which Owens raped and murdered the victim while Thompson masturbated at the foot of the bed. Thompson testified to this revised version at trial, but the many other inconsistent versions of his story were never disclosed to defense counsel, the court, or the jury.

Even worse: Defense counsel was never told about the pubic hair's match with Thompson.

In 2007, after Owens successfully petitioned for DNA testing of the hair, his case was reopened. Sixteen months later, the state dropped the case.

4th Cir. Revives Owens' Lawsuit

A few days short of three years after the charges were dropped, Owens filed a § 1983 lawsuit against officials from the City of Baltimore, the State's Attorneys Office, the Baltimore City Police Department, three detectives, and the prosecutor. He alleged a constitutional rights violation by withholding exculpatory evidence in bad faith.

The district court dismissed the claims as time-barred, holding that the three-year clock started ticking when Owens was granted a new trial. The court also held that the agencies and individuals were all immune, via sovereign and qualified immunity.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed with most of the district court's findings. On the time limit issue, because § 1983 lacks its own statute of limitations, the court looked to the most analogous state tort -- in this case, the three-year limit on personal injury cases and a malicious prosecution claim. And under the common law (citing both Prosser and Dobbs!), the time limit commences when the proceedings brought against the plaintiff are resolved in his favor -- in this case, the date of the non-prosecution.

As for immunity, the officers are not immune, as they "could not have thought that the suppression of material exculpatory evidence would pass constitutional muster," the court held. The court also held that while Owens may have trouble proving a Monell claim against the Baltimore PD, he has at least pleaded sufficient facts to survive a 12(b)(6) dismissal.

To sum it all up: Owens' claims aren't time-barred, and the detectives, the prosecutor, and the Baltimore PD are all still on the hook -- for now.

The 'Munch' and 'The Wire' Connections

According to The Baltimore Sun, Detective Jay Landsman is one of the defendants in the lawsuit. In real life, he was a Baltimore police officer. He is also the inspiration for the infamous Det. John Munch, a character who began on "Homicide: Life on the Street" and crossed over to "Law & Order SVU," setting records for most appearances in a television series (nine different shows) and most consecutive seasons on television (22).

Also, a character was named after (and based on) Landsman on HBO's "The Wire," and Landsman himself had a recurring role as a high-ranking officer on the show.

Det. Thomas Pellegrini, a co-defendant, was also the inspiration for another "Homicide" character: Det. Tim Bayliss.

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